When the best senior golfers in the game arrive for the American Family Insurance Championship the week of June 17 through 23 at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison they will find a course dramatically improved over the one they played previously.

Mostly, though, in places they don’t want to go.

At the urging of the PGA Tour Champions, UW embarked on a nearly $1 million bunker renovation project throughout the course that will not only offer better playability but also reduce maintenance demands in the future.

“There is (irony), completely,” University Ridge superintendent Phil Davidson said of improving places most golfers would rather avoid. “But it’s such an important part of playing the game … it’d be boring if there wasn’t any sand out there.”

The renovation, done in conjunction with architect Bruce Charlton of Robert Trent Jones II, who designed the course in the late 1980s, was far more involved than simply taking old sand out and putting new sand in the course’s 81 bunkers. A few bunkers that didn’t often come into play were removed completely in favor of bent-grass swales, while some of the course’s large bunkers were broken up into several smaller bunkers, so the total number won’t change much, Davidson said.

The project called for rebuilding all bunkers using the Better Billy Bunker Method, a patented system named for the onetime superintendent of August National Golf Club, Billy Fuller. Now employed at hundreds of courses around the country, the system calls for two inches of pea gravel as the base of the bunker, covered by a polymer spray that holds the gravel in place while still allowing rainfall to drain. The intended result is less sand erosion — and thus less bunker repair — even after heavy rainfall and less contamination from native soils as well.

“It’s going to be much better for everybody,” Davidson said. “The Tour’s going to like it, the players are going to like it” and course officials are going to love it because it will reduce time and money spent repairing bunkers after torrential rains like those experienced in the last two years.

“It takes a tremendous amount of labor to restore them” after washouts, Davidson said. Even the look will improve because the new bunkers will have sharply cut edges that “will really make them pop,” Davidson said.

While the work was undertaken at the Tour’s urging, Davidson said it was time for a re-do anyway.

“Bunkers have a lifespan. We’re at 25 years … bunkers typically last 18 years so we’re a little past our due. But yeah, the Tour drives it a little bit. They were playable but (needed work).”

The project began last fall on the back nine and work continued into December as weather allowed. Davidson said work would begin in spring as soon as the ground is snow-free and thawed and the hope would be to be done, or nearly so, by May 1 when renovation work would stop so the course could grow into shape for the June tournament.

Tournament host Steve Stricker agreed the improvements were both long overdue and good for both tournament participants and everyday players.

“It’ll be a huge improvement because they haven’t been very good in recent years,” he said. “Anything will be a huge improvement to what they’ve had.”

And while the work was begun with the tournament in mind, those who play University Ridge the rest of the year will likely enjoy the improvements, Davidson said. Steep slopes in some bunkers were removed and workers will be able to maintain uniform sand levels, he said, which should reduce fried-egg lies and help even high-handicap players.

This will be the fourth American Family Insurance Championship. Last year, Scott McCarron edged a star-laded field to win by one shot over Madison’s Jerry Kelly and two over Stricker, Fred Couples and Colin Montgomery.  

djmccann@centurytel.net

A Wisconsin native & longtime newspaperman, Dennis has been writing about golf for more than 20 years. When not profiling golf's colorful characters or the courses they play, he can usually be found golfing at beautiful Apostle Highlands GC in Bayfield.